I suddenly become aware of myself as I stare out of the window with, what I imagine, is the absent look of someone whose spirit is on leave from life but whose body lingers behind.
What was I seeking out there? A heartbeat? A hug? A cheerful hello? A sweet lingering goodbye? A reason?
I fear I will fail to articulate this well since it is something I have never shared with another soul: at times I catch a whiff of a familiar scent that I cannot connect to anything. My mind scrambles to find the memory or the source to which it belongs, but succeeds only in leaving me disoriented. It is a scent that has haunted me for over a decade. I know in my heart that it is connected to an unpleasant and bygone memory that may forever elude me.
I say this only to add to the list of possibilities: perhaps I am searching for the scent that might explain why I am so frequently lost and alone. The thing that might help me understand why I am so frequently looking absently—and longingly?—out of a window.
The kid in me is an idealist. His ideals cause a lot of pain because reality can never live up to them. I understand why he created these ideals. So much was missing that he needed to close his eyes and dream of a different sort of life. In this imaginary life he has a loving, empathic all-knowing mother and a warm, attentive and playful father. In this life other kids like him. He’s not overweight. He’s not awkward. He gets to play with the other children instead of getting teased. He’s a sweet child, so I think he wants everyone else to have this as well. Still, he’s a child–so he’s selfish in the way that even the sweetest kids are.
It is a sort of narcissistic fantasy (appropriately narcissistic developmentally) that the kid created in order to survive. The problem is that when the kid runs the show I can’t quite….be happy. At times I can barely even function. He’s almost always disappointed with the way his life is.
I’m not always the best at taking care of this kid. I let his idealism block my love. I wrap my arms around him and he says, “Get away. I want mommy!” I try to mother him with kind words and he says, “Go away, I want a real mommy!” And sometimes….sometimes I do get through to him and he runs off and plays and we live peacefully. But other times I just give up and let him run our lives. Like the “problem child” who ends up having way too much power in their household at too young of an age.
The truth is that sometimes I’m an abusive parent. He gets me so frustrated that I shame him or neglect him. Sometimes it’s the only thing I can do to get through the day. Especially a workday.
It may sound like I’m blaming my working life as an excuse for not doing a good job with him. Perhaps. It’s more complicated than that. A parent has a duty to take care of their kid regardless of their life circumstances. It’s what they signed up for when they decided to have one. But I certainly recognize how challenging it is when parents have to work in order to provide for the most basic needs (rent, medical insurance, car, etc).
I take care of us materially. I do whatever I can to make sure we have food and shelter and minimal luxuries. We don’t have or need too many toys but we have a TV and movies and books and games. In short, we don’t lack for anything substantial there. There is no real material neglect. I remember my parents (I point here to my adopted parents and father) constantly pointing out how lucky I was to have a home and clothes and toys. I get it–I had more than they did. They were doing their best and they were proud of how they provided. And I’m grateful to them for this. But it wasn’t enough. Neither is it enough that I take care of us in these limited ways.
I often feed the kid in the wrong ways in much the way that I was. I indulge him with food. I indulge him by giving him too much screen time. I have empathy for parents who lack firm boundaries; who indulge their children too much. So often it is the result of exhaustion. It’s the “easy” button–maybe he’ll stop crying for a second and we can have some peace! But it doesn’t help him grow up.
I am frequently tired (I’m referring to the adult now). I’m not special in this way. I have a job that revolves around helping others. It’s rewarding and exhausting. It’s especially exhausting during this painful and difficult time. I live alone. Grown-ups need hugs and special attention too. I don’t have daily doses of this type of connection. Of touch. So, I come home from work and I….well I do to my kid what my dad and grandparents so frequently did to me: I ignore him. I stick him in front of the television. I grunt that I am tired instead of tend to him. I play without inviting him to play with me. I leave him alone in his dark bedroom because it’s easier.
The kid has been running the show more frequently during this pandemic and time of social unrest. The adult is, understandably, tired, angry, and sad about the state of the world. No, it’s more than that. He’s aghast. He’s confused. He’s in pain. Again, I’m still talking about the adult. I don’t think these are unreasonable feelings. If an adult can barely withstand the pain of the world…imagine what the kid is going through.
Sometimes taking care of the inner kid can be like a Catch-22. Only I can satisfy him (when I get it right) and yet….my adult is also lacking in a lot. But it’s no excuse. I know that if I take care of the kid that the adult…well he’ll be sad. He’ll be angry. But he won’t feel like he can’t function in the world. He’ll be able to take in love. He’ll be okay. Perhaps a wee melancholic, but that can be lovely when the melancholy doesn’t morph into depression.
The kid has been leaning heavily into his idealistic fantasies for the past few months. He shrugs off my love and the love of others. He’s constantly saying, “NO! and running off into his room. The problem is that I leave him there too long. Just like I was left alone for too long. He can’t appreciate the love that is there because….well, there is no all-knowing perfectly empathic mother out there. There is no warm and always playful father out there. It’s just us. And I need to stay with him. And I’ll keep trying.
I am afraid. Afraid that I can’t tolerate the pain. So I confine myself. I rigidly control my own life by trying to put everything in its time and place. I even control my life via the labels I put upon myself. Any deviation from the plan or the label is a risk. And yet these risks are nothing more than everyday disappointments; the type that most adults shrug off and move on from without a second thought.
I often avoid interacting if it’s not planned. I realize that I brace myself for interactions–even with those I love. I can find peace and calm with those I love but it often takes me a while to get there; to lower my guard. It’s hard for me to simply walk into interpersonal situations with a sense of joy at the start.
So I am often caught between a deep loneliness and the relief of being left alone. Between the pain of solitude and the possible disappointment of human interaction. And yet, again, the disappointments I try to avoid are of the everyday kind.
Everyone can relate to avoiding difficult conversations or ones that will likely be painful (breakup talks; state of the union relationship talks; etc). I am often afraid of simple check-ins, greetings, or how-are-you-doing? type interactions. Put another way, I’m not especially afraid of the type of conversations that that are widely deemed difficult–I’m afraid of the everyday stuff. The simple sharing. I often don’t know what to say. I wait. I feel stuck. Lost. The harder I try the harder it is to say anything.
Others often confuse my rigidity with a sense of self. I get too much positive feedback about how I know who I am and what I like; about how well I do at holding boundaries. Maybe at times this is true. But it is as true that often I’m just turning the steering wheel away from….life.
I am tearful as I write this because…because I’m old and I’m still dealing with this stuff. Because the amount of pain and work involved to move through this feels daunting. Terrifying. It’s embarrassing to admit that everyday life is difficult for me to navigate.
The theme of the forgotten child keeps emerging in my writing and in my dreams. The way that a child feels the pain of being left alone but can create comfort by living in its head: a sort of schizoid universe that is lonely but also cozy. And more importantly: controllable. Sometimes interactions with others feel like a threat to that carefully constructed inner world and to the barriers that are set in place to protect it. Sometimes the simplest interaction throws me so far off that I can’t find my balance for a while. I feel confused about why I shared what I did. Or what I really wanted from the interaction. Sometimes it’s even painful, but painful for reasons I can’t quite articulate. Maybe it’s that thing of….here’s an opportunity but I don’t quite know what to do with it.
I hope to get back to writing about music or things that…help me transcend. Flow. I just don’t have it in me right now.
you’re falling further
please don’t cry
there’s no point in waiting
for what will never come
but wait – it’s time for dinner
spicy and tangy and warm
homemade corn tortillas!
robust, chewy and soft
you can feel again
is that your body?
is that your heartbeat?
as your teeth sink
through the soft tortilla
and into the tender flesh
there is so much leftover
so much love
on the kitchen table
help yourself to more
make yourself sick
then go away
lock the door
play with your toys
spin your records
and read your books
wonder what grandma will make for dinner tomorrow…
It is with a barely perceptible guilt that I confess to using the lunch money my father gave me for school to purchase records rather than food (I don’t want to incriminate anyone but my grandmother may or may not have been an accomplice by making me lunches on the sly). When school got out I rode the bus to Rockpile or The Sound Factory (two of the local independent record shops) and, once there, made a bee line to the Import section. Even remembering this quickens my heartbeat and calls the hair on my arms to attention.
I loved the smell of these shops. There was no one thing that smelled especially pleasant. Rather it was the alchemic combination of plastic wrap, laminated cardboard, musty well-trodden carpet and vinyl that created a scent that was almost unbearably exciting to me. (Rockpile Records added to this mystical formula the scent of the owner’s cheap cologne, fast-food and stale beer).
Once I was at the racks I began my adventure by using my right index and middle fingers to slowly flip my way through the upright stacks. When a record caught my fancy I would gently pull it out with my right hand and reverently look at both sides. It was a sacred and sensual process wherein I held these objects (nay, these living organisms!) with excitement and tenderness. It was love. And it was passion. And it was the way the combination of these two things informed the way I touched these divine bearers of emotion and, at times, transformation.
The sneakily appropriated–but not stolen!–$15-20 I had in my pocket was everything I had. It was risky to buy a record I had never heard based on its cover. But the thrill was contingent on the risk! On the ride home I clutched the bag that held my record in eager anticipation: would it open new doors or leave me flat and disappointed?
I turn my attention to some of the records that invited themselves into my life. The record covers that made my heart flutter or filled my mind with wonder.
Dark. Romantic. Beautiful. Gloomy. A figure trapped within delicately patterned lace bowing its head. Something ancient. Certainly something far removed from my everyday existence. How do you pronounce “Cocteau”? Mystery is what drew me in. The need to unravel the mystery.
Monochromatic orange. I’m strangely drawn to her. She looks like she has lived. Like she knows something I don’t. She doesn’t look like anyone from school. Like anyone from the movies. She’s pretty but in a way that’s…different. Is that the artist? The singer? No, no, no–it can’t be, because here’s another thing from them..
A half-naked man. Will my family ask questions if I buy this? They won’t care. They never pay attention. But last year my grandpa “accused” me of being gay. Will he bring that up again? Nah, he won’t see it. The Smiths? Why would you choose that as the name for your band? It’s so fucking plain and boring. But these photographs…I can’t stop looking at them. Moody. I think I have felt the things these people are feeling. (I bought the latter on this occasion.)
What is the name of the band? Is that the song title or the band name? It must be the song. Why wouldn’t you put the name of the band on the cover? This is so beautiful but it makes me feel sad. I feel a bit frightened. What if this hurts? “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. I’m not sure what it means but I can feel that it means something to me. Why? It’s a 12″ single and not an album. $10 for two songs. I can’t stop looking. [The band’s name is Joy Division]
The Cocteau Twins record transported me into a new world. I’d never heard a singing voice like Liz Fraser’s: ethereal and angelic. The music was singular as well: a gentle beautiful noise; more abstract soundscapes than songs. To this day I can’t articulate why their music makes me feel loved, but it does. In retrospect, this music helped me connect to the parts of me that were imaginative, romantic and mysterious.
The Smiths were so direct and poetic. The songs were these sad (and sometimes funny) tales about a person (Morrissey) who seemed to be fumbling his way through life. Perpetually lonely. Constantly heartbroken. I was excited and intrigued that the songs were addressed to men and, very often, a generic “they”. Somehow it made me feel more understood. It felt…expansive. And the music! Though Johnny Marr’s music could be melancholy at times, it was always beautiful and often jubilant and bright. There was a sparkle and shine to it that contrasted perfectly with the sometimes morose operatic sound of Morrissey’s voice. They became the most important band of my life. I felt understood. They gave me permission to find my own version of “cool”: a sensitive and lonely outsider who didn’t have to be ashamed of being different.
The relationship I had to Joy Division was more complicated. I loved the music–the melodic and heavy bass lines and the exciting drumming. The sound was spacious and stark. But the voice, it sounded…like a person choking on their own pain: slightly out-of-tune, dramatic and dark. The words were painful to hear. I would enter into their world and then need to back away from it in order to survive. It was a special place that required a certain headspace. (This is no longer true for me. As I got older I began to hear the music as something more akin to…a very unique form of rock n’ roll.)
The trip to the record shop was a search for love, companionship, understanding and transformation. Music was my best friend, lover and mentor. For better and worse it held me in its arms and carried me to places I could not have otherwise visited. It gave me something to love (and be loved by) until I could learn to cultivate love with people. I will forever be grateful to the music and to the sacred record shops that gave me access to it.
[P.S. I told my father this afternoon that I used the lunch money he gave me in high school to buy records. He looked at me, smiled sincerely and shrugged his shoulders. My guess is that the thirty plus years that have passed have softened him up some. Either that or he knows something about the statute of limitations on these sorts of crimes.]
The term “post-punk”, like any label that gets attached to art, is both informative and meaningless. For the interest of this article I wish to attach my own flawed definition in order that I may move forward with minimal pedantry.
You are free to disagree with my definition and with who I include in this movement, but know that this is meant to be the beginning of a series of love letters to the music that has accompanied me from adolescence through the present. It is not meant to be a critical analysis. I am neither critic, muso, nor historian. Though my taste in music covers a wide-spectrum, the post-punk movement contains the music with which I have most connected. I see myself reflected in this complicated, difficult, off-center, flawed and even beautiful music (finding the beauty requires a personal investment and that is my favorite form of beauty). A love letter is meant to come from the heart. And it is from my heart that I wish to write. I will begin by providing a bit of context before moving into the love.
To me post-punk refers to a period and style of music which both overlaps with and emerges from first wave punk. The sound embodies the energy and do-it-yourself ethos of punk (anyone is free to have a go regardless of technical ability) with an avant-garde and modernist approach that combines seemingly disparate non-rock influences like funk, reggae, modern classical and free jazz. Where punk was about returning to the basics of rock ‘n roll and giving it back to the people (rejecting the complicated and bullshit mythology of the male rock-god and the hard-rock sounds that were but dull appropriations of good blues music), post-punk was about injecting punk with a large dose of nuance and experimentalism.
One of the key elements of post-punk is its unpredictable and chaotic nature. What first drew me in was the way the sound captured the despair, grief and chaos of my own soul. I will use as an example the Public Image Limited song “Swan Lake” (aka “Death Disco”).
Final in a fade Watch her slowly die Saw it in her eyes Choking on a bed Flowers rotting dead Seen it in her eyes Ending in a day Silence was a way Seeing in your eyes Seeing in your eyes Seeing in your eyes I’m seeing through my eyes Words cannot express
Listen to the way John Lydon wails (not sings) his way through the song. He captures the felt sense of someone going unhinged by watching their mother slowly die of cancer. It is the sound of cold and anguished grief and despair. The sound of someone trying to make sense of their pain and loss. At times it feels like insanity. Pay special attention to Keith Levene’s guitar sound: challenging, scratchy textures that contribute to the despair rather than provide redemption through melody.
Here I refer back to the title of this article. I wish to focus on the rhythm of this song. What I wouldn’t have been able to articulate in my youth (though I’m sure I had a felt sense of it) is that the chaos and despair that rises to the top of the music is anchored by the steady grounded sound of the bass and drums (though the rhythm section of almost any contemporary music is meant to be an anchor, it feels especially salient when the guitars and vocals are flirting with madness).
Listen to the way Jah Wobble’s repetitive (almost funky) bass line keeps everything firmly rooted. If the vocals and the guitars are the sound of a despairing heart, the bass and drums are the sound of a body rooted to ground. From this grounded place John and Keith can enter into their temporary madness without completely disintegrating. And that, my dear reader, is what makes a song like this so exciting: it is the sound of near-disintegration. It takes us right to the limits of our despair while giving us a rope to hold onto for dear life. It speaks of death while being firmly rooted in life.
When once you find this for yourself, you will appreciate the beauty of the song. The way it captures a deeply human experience. And then suddenly, this thing that at first glance was spotty and disheveled, becomes a gorgeous and soulful living organism.
Though post-punk varies greatly in sound, I do believe that a common element is how it relies on its rhythms to create sanity (and sometimes melody), thereby giving the guitars and vocals free rein to travel to unpredictable and challenging places.
I understand that to many it will remain a noisy and difficult song with an unbearable sound. That’s okay. We can’t all fall in love with the same people and things. I merely wish to begin the process of coming out; of bringing to the light of day the reasons I fell, and remain, in love.
The door is latched. The blinds are drawn.
The hum of my fan playing a breezy steady tune. The whoosh of cars passing in the distance. The conversations of neighbors—muffled and indistinct. The flush of the toilet next door. The thud of a drawer hastily shut.